In grade school, we learned by heart the corporal works of mercy: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the imprisoned, and the rest. We are reminded of them regularly in this Gospel reading: “For as often as you did these things … you did it to me” (Matthew 25: 31-46 ).
On Sept. 11, we learned just how important those works of mercy are.
However much confusion there may be about some points of doctrine or morality, it is obvious that Catholics are well aware of the imperative to practice the works of mercy. Catholic leadership in this area was on display in New York in the person of Father Mychal Judge, the fire department chaplain who died helping victims of the terrorist attacks, and in the TV images of nuns on the front lines of the World Trade Center tragedy.
But how can we bring a little of their spirit into our own families, day to day?
For most, this is largely carried out via the checkbook. We select from among the appeals for the needy that come to our homes, and respond according to our means and consciences. This gives us real contact with the suffering we see on the news. If we can't go to the Red Cross offices in Washington or New York, we know our money can.
But apart from these special circumstances, how does a family build up a culture of giving?
How do we form our children so that, in tragedies to come, they will carry on the Catholic tradition of rushing to the aid of the needy?
Children learn the lessons of charity in only way that really sticks: through example and experience.
At Ground Zero
The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in New York were out in force to help the suffering when tragedy struck Manhattan. They're used to it: Their mission is to care for the physical and spiritual needs of the homeless.
But that would be impossible without a corollary effort, started by Long Island florist Charlie Moran and his wife, Helen.
You see, the friars exist to feed the hungry, but someone has to feed the friars. They take vows of complete poverty, make no provision for themselves, and rely on whatever is given to them. Until recently, this made for a rather unbalanced diet.
Then, two years ago, the Morans founded Friar Suppliers. Starting with their prayer group, and then expanding to everyone he met, Charlie built up a base of 125 donors who supply the funds.
Once a month, on a Friday night, Charlie goes on an all-night shopping spree at various supermarkets and wholesale warehouses. The next day, the Morans, with their three children, plus five other families, sort food, bag it, and load it into vans for delivery to the Franciscans’ homes in Harlem and the South Bronx.
The workaday charity of the Morans makes possible the more visible works of mercy by the friars.
‘We Are Very, Very Rich’
Far away from the terrorist hot spots, other families inculcate a life of charity in their families.
Joe Campbell of Ypsilanti, Mich., never planned to involve himself or his family with regular volunteer work for the Missionaries of Charity in Detroit. He just wanted one of his daughters, who was considering a reli gious vocation, to be exposed to the work of different orders before making up her mind.
But after he, his wife and six of their children spent a day serving meals to the homeless alongside the sisters, they were profoundly affected.
“We live in a very modest neighborhood. But on the way home that day, one of the kids said, ‘We are very, very, very rich,’” recalled Campbell. “Our society is so separated by race, by economic class. This exposure to the poor was something we needed. And to see what the sisters were doing, this was good for us.”
Now Joe, his wife Helen, and their three youngest children (aged 11, 9, and 7) help the Missionaries two to four Saturdays a month.
Two older, teen-age children also accompany them from time to time.
Besides serving meals they sing and play hymns to accompany the readings the sisters do before the meal. They also clean up afterwards. A stop for a fast-food treat on the way home helps keep the kids motivated.
The Young Comfort the Old
Miriam Buono of Arlington, Va., began visiting nursing home residents as part of a high-school service project. She kept it up through college, and was still visit ing an elderly man through the time of her marriage and the births of her three children.
Noting how her friend's enjoyment of her visits was only increased by the presence of the kids, Miriam conceived the idea for involving more families in this work of mercy.
She started the “Adopt a Friend” program in her parish, where she acts as “a sort of match maker. I match up interested families with an elderly person at our local nursing home. They are matched according to various preferences and common interests. The family commits to visiting their elderly friend one or more times a month.”
Between 40 and 50 families have signed up since Buono began the program.
Visiting the elderly is a natural for children, says Buono. Nursing home residents are cheered by the presence of children, whose open personalities are relatively free of adult hang-ups about aging and death.
And visiting as a family, with their parents, has far more meaning than trips organized by school-teachers. “Parents have to give the example. You can say things all up and down to them. But if you don't do it, it won't help. If Mom and Dad are involved, the kids take ownership.”
How Do They Do It?
Many admire works of charity from a distance, and even wish they could do the same.
But who has the time? And who has the talent necessary to serve others in these ways, large and small?
“Pray and seek the Lord and he will attract you to what he wants you to do,” advises Joe Campbell. “Don't get on a guilt trip. God calls on all of us to minister and to serve others, but in different ways. Works of mercy flow from prayer and communion with Christ.”